The 1951 MODEL BLONDE (Sep, 1951)
The 1951 MODEL BLONDE
By ROBERT CAHN
She’s filmdom’s Marilyn Monroe: Miss Cheesecake to GIs, whistle-bait in the studios—and an actress on her way up.
IT WAS the kind of family party that Hollywood studios periodically throw for their outlying salesmen and picture-exchange executives in order to whoop up enthusiasm for the company’s forthcoming product. The Cafe de Paris, more simply known as the 20th Century-Fox commissary, was crowded with a cheery assemblage of studio bigwigs and freshly manicured salesmen. For five days, in an atmosphere of backslapping camaraderie, the guests had watched the celluloid unroll, the same films which they were expected to describe as colossal and mean it. Now as a final lift to their morale the visitors were meeting, over highballs and hors d’oeuvres, such marquee names as Susan Hayward, Jeanne Crain, June Haver, Anne Baxter, Gregory Peck and Tyrone Power.
The party had fallen into small groups, one star per group, and at the bar a weary press agent was asking for his fifth highball when he glanced toward the doorway where Marilyn Monroe, a recently acquired studio starlet, had just arrived. Amid a slowly gathering hush, she stood there, a blonde apparition in a strapless black cocktail gown, a little breathless as if she were Cinderella just stepped from a pumpkin coach. At that moment, the salesmen’s esprit de corps took a sudden leap upward.
The press agent put down his drink. “I’d better get over and get the introductions started,” he remarked to a colleague. “Stand by for the massacre.”
He was too late. Already a studio vice-president and two producers, suddenly self-designated Prince Charmings, had converged on the late arrival. A moment later she was wafted off by the upper echelons, her progress punctuated by the popping of flash bulbs as the visitors pressed forward to have their pictures taken with her. Finally, as the guests sat down for dinner, the blonde was installed at the head of the No. 1 table, at the right hand of company president Spyros Skouras.
While the long-established female stars silently measured her, young Marilyn Monroe, who has logged less than 50 minutes’ screen time, stole the show.
Sitting there, her chin resting prettily on the backs of her fingers, Marilyn looked the part of the standard Hollywood Blonde, traditionally equipped with automatic batting eyelashes, a vague smile that seems to include everybody, and a head filled with sawdust. Certainly her 118 pounds, handsomely distributed throughout her five-foot five-inch frame, are from the classic mold—bust, 37 inches; waist, 23 inches; hips, 34 inches. So sumptuous are Miss Monroe’s dimensions that long before most people knew her name, her anonymous body was used to exploit the pictures in which she briefly appeared.
But all that is misleading. Marilyn is a beautiful blonde, but she is not a vacuous one. Her film experience is sharply limited, but her potential as a sensitive actress is not. Unlike many of her assembly-line predecessors, Marilyn has given clear indications that the 1951 model Hollywood blonde is custom-built.
This has been apparent in her movie appearances, brief as they have been. Only once in a producer’s blue moon does there appear a blonde who brings to the screen a special indelible vitality, and not simply the empty prettiness that the audience forgets as it leaves the theater. Marilyn Monroe is not a girl anyone quickly forgets. While Hollywood blondes are generally considered the industry’s most expendable item, Miss Monroe’s value during the past year has risen faster than the cost of living.
scribed by one observer as having “hardly enough room for the polka dots.” Miraculously gathered by the grapevine, so many studio employees crowded the set that Director Joe Newman, without enough space to move his actors, was forced to bar all visitors.
The following day another scene required Marilyn to enter her apartment and leisurely disrobe for a shower unaware that the hero, Bill Lundigan, was asleep on a couch in the room.
Just as Marilyn had stripped to her flimsy underthings, director Newman bellowed: “Cut!”
Marilyn looked startled. “Did I do something wrong?” she asked innocently.
“No, honey,” replied Newman. “You were perfect. But Lundigan was peeking.”
Warmed by these spontaneous demonstrations of Miss Monroe’s appeal, Fox executives are eagerly searching for new Bit Role Attracts Notice After looking on Marilyn merely as whistle-bait for four years, the film capital became abruptly aware of her last year at the first screening of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. Audiences of professional people perked up noticeably when the camera switched to a sofa filled by a recumbent blonde in tight-fitting, one-piece lounging pajamas. When the reclining form stirred enough to walk, talk and even kiss “Uncle Lon,” played by Louis Calhern, there were murmurings in the projection room, as the watchers tried to discover the identity of the newcomer; she had not been listed at the beginning of the picture. This same lack was to trouble many another audience. Soon after the picture’s release, Marilyn received a fan letter from a Midwest college fraternity.
“A bunch of us fellows went down to see Asphalt Jungle,” they wrote. “And when you came on the screen we almost lost our eyeballs. We didn’t even know who you were.”
People have rapidly been finding out. Even in All About Eve, surrounded by one of the best casts Hollywood has assembled in recent years, Marilyn won more than her share of attention in the small role of the dumb blonde introduced by George Sanders as “a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts.” More recently, with ears cocked to the whistles and wolf calls that have greeted Miss Monroe’s appearance as the provocative secretary in As Young As You Feel, shrewd exhibitors have begun for the first time to put her name on their theater marquees.
Hollywood’s hearing is no less acute. Today, spurred by Marilyn’s impact on audiences. Fox press agents are in the midst of the biggest publicity build-up since the Jane Russell campaign. During the past 12 months, the studio’s press department has sent out more than 3,000 pictures of Marilyn to newspapers alone. In Germany the editors of Stars and Stripes have selected her “Miss Cheesecake of 1951,” and in Korea her pin-ups swiftly were rated as the choicest wallpaper obtainable.
Like a famous predecessor, Jean Harlow, Marilyn’s name is rapidly becoming the current Hollywood definition of sex appeal. After reading a Soviet attack on poems which have romantic ardor without social significance, one Hollywood columnist, Jim Henaghan, boldly suggested, “Let’s drop a handful of pictures of Marilyn Monroe on them and see what happens.”
Even on a sound stage among actors, to whom there is little new under the sun, Marilyn is a disturbing influence. During the filming of Love Nest, scheduled for release in a few weeks, Marilyn caused a small crisis when she appeared in a red and white polka-dot Bikini bathing suit de- and combustible roles for her. Proceeding cautiously by placing Miss Monroe in smaller roles to gain experience, the studio chiefs are keeping their fingers crossed. They hope they have another Harlow. Even production chief Darryl Zanuck has gone on record: “Miss Monroe is the most exciting new personality in Hollywood in a long time.”
Officials at Fox are quick to change the subject, however, when it is mentioned that the studio discovered Miss Monroe five years ago, dropped her contract after one eventful year, and then scrambled to return her to the fold after a rival studio had proved in The Asphalt Jungle that she could do more than adorn backgrounds and pose for cheesecake.
Wrong guesses about Marilyn are nothing new. Her greatest handicap, odd as it seems, is her face and figure, which automatically have typed her as the brainless sort. A few persons who have looked a little closer have seen, behind the panchromatic make-up and the studied, protective starlet mannerisms, a face on which 23 years of living have written several anguished chapters. Sometimes, behind the false eyelashes, comes the look of a lost child.
For most of her life, Marilyn was a lost child, with no family of her own—just a long succession of strange households that offered her food and shelter of various sorts, and little else. During the greater part of her childhood she was a public ward; her name then was Norma Jean Baker. She was a thin, sad-faced little girl of five, living with foster parents in an industrial suburb of Los Angeles, when she was first told that her father had been killed in an automobile accident before she was born, and that her mother had become too ill to take care of her.
This first household was a religious, austere one; dancing, smoking, movies and playing cards were considered “works of the devil.” Yet a few months later, transferred to the equally modest home of a pair of Hollywood extras, she was taught to play cards and taken to picture shows. Eager to discover her talents, the movie-struck “parents” asked if she could dance. Norma Jean obligingly wiggled through her versions of a Spanish fandango, a hula-hula, and a sailor’s hornpipe, all of which movie theaters on endless Saturday afternoons, seeing the movie over and over until long past her bedtime. It required no special clairvoyance on her part to understand that her successive “parents” cared little about her. Once she remembered passing a closed door and hearing a woman say, “I’ve got to get rid of that quiet little girl, she makes me nervous.” As her childish efforts to win love and acceptance were repeatedly rejected, she gradually withdrew into the world of fantasy.
She invented solitary games. Once, as a Christmas present, she asked for a flashlight. With this as a prop, Marilyn for weeks afterward played detective, prowling up and down the nearby streets in full daylight intently jotting down the numbers of license plates. On the way to school she composed lengthy fantasies, and even in the classroom spent much of her time dreaming about an imaginary father who was kind and good and looked like Clark Gable.
Once, when no family could be found to take her, Norma Jean stayed for several months at the Los Angeles Orphans’ Home Society, a temporary refuge for children from broken families. She tried to run away, but was caught and taken before the superintendent. She stood there rigid and silent, awaiting her punishment. Instead, the superintendent remarked how pretty Norma Jean looked. Taking out her own powder puff, she gently patted it across the youngster’s shiny nose. The little girl looked up, baffled by this unexpected kindness.
“No one ever before had noticed my hair, or my face—or even me—I guess,” says Marilyn of the occasion. “For the first time in my life, I felt loved.”
She soon moved on to another foster home, however. As she grew older, Norma Jean became tall and gawky, with short strawlike hair, hesitant, sometimes stuttering speech, and a shy, scared manner. One family called her “little mouse,” and the only way in which boys noticed her was to sing out “Norma Jean—string bean.”
looked alike. She was desperately hurt when her new guardians laughed aloud.
Although little Norma Jean tried often and hard to please her assorted parents, she was to meet with many another rebuff. During her nomadic childhood she was to confront the restrictions, prejudices and peculiarities of 12 different families before she was sixteen.
There was the Christmas when Norma Jean was given a part in the class play, only to lose it when her current foster mother, fearing she would forget her lines and embarrass the family, asked the teacher to give it to someone else. Or the Easter when she was on a stage for the first time, as one of 50 black-robed youngsters forming a cross at Hollywood Bowl.
“We all had on white tunics under the black robes,” Marilyn recalls, “and at a given signal we were supposed to throw off the robes, changing the cross from black to white. But I got so interested in the people, the orchestra and the hills that I forgot to watch the conductor for the signal. And there I was—the only black mark on a white cross. The family I was living with never forgave me.”
She came to expect rebuffs or the indifference of a new guardian, who, on the first day of school, took her to the door and pointed: “Go down two blocks, turn left and keep going till you see the school.” She got used to being left in neighborhood A Home with Motherly Care At about the time she entered junior high school at the age of twelve, Norma Jean underwent a startling physical change. She began to fill out. The change in the attitude of the boys was no less startling. Their gibes changed to whistles. In the same yea.” she moved to West Los Angeles, where, in the home of a childless widow, Mrs. Ana Lower, Norma Jean found for the first time the warmth and maternal affection she had never had.
When boys would walk Norma Jean home from school, “Aunt Ana” would invite them in for a cold lemonade. When a crush on a neighboring twenty-five-year-old aircraft worker received no response, Aunt Ana compassionately understood. And when they could afford only one change of school clothes, Aunt Ana would wash and iron every day so the girl at least could be clean and fresh.
Norma Jean began to blossom. At school she developed a hero worship for Abraham Lincoln and spent hours at home doing unrequired extra work. She even won a prize for writing a short story, which the teacher said was the best he ever had received from a student. Her work was so good that she skipped a grade, the high seventh.
After two years, Aunt Ana’s job began to take her away from home much of the time, and it again became necessary for Norma Jean to move on. Nonetheless, she made frequent trips back to the West Los Angeles home until Aunt Ana’s death three years ago. Today, Marilyn still remembers Mrs. Lower with the attachment most children feel for their real mothers.
At sixteen, when her twelfth set of foster parents prepared to send her to another home because of a trip East, Marilyn impetuously married a twenty-three-year-old boy friend in the Merchant Marine. The hasty marriage soon broke up”, and Marilyn found herself compelled to earn a living.
With no training for any career, she turned to modeling. She stayed at it for a couple of years, and by the summer of 1946, her appearance on several magazine covers had brought talent scouts from both Howard Hughes and Fox studios in her pursuit. Suddenly, things happened fast. Within a matter of days, she had been tested at Fox, been signed to a contract beginning at $125 a week, and had had her name changed to Marilyn Monroe.
From a Cameraman’s Angle “When I first watched her,” says Leon Shamroy, the Academy Award-winning cameraman who made the screen test, “I thought: This girl will be another Harlow —and I still do. Her natural beauty plus her inferiority complex gave her a look of mystery.”
Marilyn was rushed into a small role in a Technicolor film called Scudda Hoo. Scudda Hay, but her part failed to survive the economies of the cutting room. During the next few months, while she gradually lost some of her shyness posing for pin-ups, Marilyn had only one other opportunity to gain an audience. One March day the publicity department set up a shot in which she posed clad in a flesh-colored negligee. Afterward she had to walk a quarter mile back to the wardrobe department to get her clothes, and a strong wind had arisen as she strolled up the company street past the administration building. Word of what was happening passed around like lightning.
“It was like the Lindbergh home-coming,” recalls a studio executive. “People were leaning out of every window. And there was Marilyn, naive and completely unperturbed, smiling and waving up at everybody she knew, didn’t know or hoped to know.”
Unfortunately, the one executive who missed the display was Zanuck. Soon thereafter, still not having met Miss Monroe and apparently unaware of her charms, he failed to pick up her option at the end of her first year, and Marilyn returned to the limbo of forgotten Hollywood Blondes.
Signed on at Columbia a few months later, she was given a role as a burlesque queen in Ladies of the Chorus, a B picture made in nine days, which few people saw and even fewer remember. Her only other appearance in a six-month stay at Columbia was on the wall of a Western set, as a pin-up serenaded by Gene Autry.
The first time most people in Hollywood recall seeing Marilyn Monroe on the screen was in an eight-word part in the Marx Brothers comedy Love Happy, made for United Artists shortly after she left Columbia. The scene called for Marilyn to walk into an office dressed in a tight-fitting, silver lame evening gown and anxiously tell private eye Groucho Marx, “I need your help.” Groucho was then to set up the gag with an innocent, “What can I do?” Whereupon Marilyn was to hip-wiggle out of the door replying, “Men keep following me.”
When they started shooting, Marilyn sashayed into the room with the impact of a 50-piece brass band. Groucho stared, said his line, “What can I do for you?” as scheduled. Then suddenly he turned to face the camera, raised his famous eyebrows and ad-libbed, “Am I kidding?”
So effective was Marilyn Monroe’s brief appearance that she was featured in all the advertising and sent on a personal appearance tour to exploit the picture.
Aside from these short-term chores, Marilyn lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Once, after several good modeling jobs, she bought a small convertible, but lost it quickly to the finance company. At another time, dead broke, she found sanctuary and a helping hand in the home of Lucille Ryman, talent department head at M-G-M. Another friend, and a top Hollywood agent, the late Johnny Hyde, tried to help her career along. But a short stint as a dancing girl in the Fox Western, Ticket to Tomahawk, merely paid off old grocery bills.
It was not until early last year that Mari- lyn got her first big break, when Miss Ryman recommended her to John Huston for a role in The Asphalt Jungle. Despite his doubts as to her acting ability, Huston promised her a tryout. After working with her coach, Natasha Lytess, for three days, Marilyn returned and read through the scene for the director. Before he could say a word, she asked: “Please, Mr. Huston, let me do it again? I know I can do better.”
When Huston nodded assent, Marilyn got out of the stiff-backed chair, kicked off her high-heeled shoes, and sat cross-legged on the floor, to read the part with childlike ease. She got the role.
Before its public release, Fox director Joe Mankiewicz saw The Asphalt Jungle at a private screening and decided Miss Monroe looked like the type he needed for the dumb blonde in All About Eve. She got the part, of course, and did well with it. That was her second big break, and it led directly to the third, and biggest yet.
After Zanuck saw the first day’s rushes on All About Eve. he put in a hasty call for Miss Monroe and her agent. Slightly embarrassed when Marilyn told him she had tried without success to see him while working for Fox three years previously, Zanuck made up for it with a new seven-year contract that started at $500 a week, with options up to $3,500 a week. Marilyn, at long last, had her foot firmly planted on the ladder.
Off the screen. Marilyn Monroe has managed to maintain an almost Garbolike secrecy about her private life. At the studio, she makes friends easily and is well liked, but her only really close personal friends are Natasha Lytess and Lucille Ryman. She is rarely seen at night clubs, and her refusal to follow the approved starlet custom of being seen with as many different men as often as possible has puzzled even the usually clairvoyant columnists. Their bewilderment, in turn, puzzles her. “If there were someone I was really interested in, I’d go out with him all I could. But why go out on dates just to be going out?”
Marilyn doesn’t even show up at formal premieres, normally considered compulsory attendance affairs for starlets. When the publicity department demanded that she make an appearance at the premiere of All About Eve, she flatly refused, explaining that she had to study her lines for a screen test the following morning.
But at the studio and in her public appearances Marilyn eagerly fulfills all the requirements expected of a starlet. She is particularly concerned with looking her best, and spends hours at the make-up table in preparation for even commonplace engagements. The people at Fox who are responsible for seeing that she gets to appointments on time are certain that if each day had 30 hours, Marilyn would use them all in getting ready. No matter how much advance notice she is given, she is always late. Her “I’ll be just a minute” can range anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours.
Actually this concern stems from her childhood eagerness to please. For in her unguarded moments, Marilyn is still a shy, uncertain girl, who takes solitary pleasure in long early-morning walks up and down the vacant Beverly Hills alleys, clad in old shirts and faded blue jeans. She has an oppressive awareness of the swift passage of time and of her own perishability. She works long hours at home over her lines; beside her is a large wall mirror—waxed so that her own image will not distract her. On the mirror is scrawled the one Latin word she knows—nunc—meaning now.
“I’m twenty-three now,” said Marilyn recently, in the tone of someone who has discovered she has an incurable ailment. “Soon I’ll be twenty-five. Before I know it- I’ll be twenty-eight.”
Marilyn lives in a small Beverly Hills apartment, with few of the fairy princess trappings that she once dreamed about and can now afford. Her wardrobe is modest, and the most notable furnishings are an exercise board, a phonograph with records ranging from Beethoven to Jelly Roll Morton, and a multitude of books.
In the past, it has been standard operating procedure for some press agents to suggest that the harebrained cuties they publicize are really 14-carat intellects who furrow their brows nightly over Albert Schweitzer, Leo Tolstoi and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The astonishing fact is that Marilyn does just that—not because she is an old friend of those writers, but because she would like to be. On a shelf over her bed and in her three-tier bookcase is an impressive array of well-thumbed volumes by such people as Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke, John Milton and Lincoln Steffens (plus Schweitzer, Tolstoi and Emerson).
Without any hullabaloo, Marilyn quietly enrolled last fall at the University of California’s night school in downtown Los Angeles for a course in “Backgrounds of Literature.” She appeared at the sessions without make-up and in informal jacket and skirt, and it was several weeks before anyone in the course knew that “Miss Monroe” was in the movies. When Marilyn was absent one night, a student brought to class a movie magazine with her picture in it. At first the teacher. Claire Seay, refused to believe it. “Marilyn was so attentive, so modest and so humble that she could have been some girl who had just come from a convent,” Mrs. Seay said later.
Aside from the two-year period when she was with Aunt Ana, Marilyn never paid much attention to her studies. Today she has an insatiable desire to make up for it, to learn new things. At night school she is_ constantly pestering the student next to her to find out what certain big words mean. Quite often, like other pretty actresses, she finds herself at parties among famous people like William Saroyan, California’s Governor Earl Warren or Irving Berlin. When the conversation switches to topics like the use of the veto in the United Nations, Marilyn becomes the most attentive listener. The next day she is likely to go to a bookstore for a volume on the subject.
Drab Childhood Seen as Asset Marilyn has long since resigned herself to the fact that whenever she tries to explain her genuine interest in new subjects or ideas she runs into a wall of disbelief. This problem is well understood by her coach: Natasha Lytess feels that Marilyn’s unhappy childhood may one day help her to become an actress of unexpected depth.
“There’s more to Marilyn than meets the eye,” says Miss Lytess. “The trouble is that when people look at her they immediately figure her as a typical Hollywood Blonde. It’s not their fault, though. Marilyn’s soul just doesn’t fit her body.”
Understandably, after being around Hollywood for five years, Marilyn is impatient to prove herself in something more than supporting parts. At Fox, where they are building her up gradually, she has just completed her biggest role yet, assisting Claudette Colbert and MacDonald Carey in Let’s Make It Legal, scheduled for November release. The Monroe glamor gets full display in this film: she appears in two varieties of swimming suits, one brief tennis costume, a sweater-tight golf outfit, two slinky cocktail dresses and one low-cut evening gown.
Other studios, realizing what even one minute of Monroe can do for the box office, have requested her for parts in their forthcoming productions. Most persistent has been RKO, which wanted Marilyn for the lead in High Heels, a story of a dance-hall hostess. But so far 20th Century Fox has refused all loan-out requests.
Meanwhile, like Topsy, who “just growed,” Marilyn believes in letting her curiosity lead her. After the innumerable parental restrictions of her childhood she cannot bear the sense of being cramped by authority or set patterns.
Perhaps that explains what she means when she says, “Someday I want to have a house of my own with trees and grass and hedges all around, but never trim them at all—just let them grow any old way they want.”